My son, Jacob, was born at 31 weeks gestation. While he bore no diagnosis related to prematurity, his first year of life was wrought with pain and what I think of as an underdeveloped nervous system. Because of Jacob being premature, I can’t help but compare his sister’s birth just fourteen months later. The experience of Jacob’s birth definitely informed the manner in which I approached the gestation of little Elizabeth.
Because of my history of premature birth, I’d been prescribed bi-monthly sonograms from 16 weeks through week 28. The series of sonograms was to check that my cervix was long and closed. And, within that segment of time, it was. Though all the evidence should have led to a full-term birth, I had a feeling Elizabeth would be born early too.
Visions of my water breaking and caring for a 14-month-old while my newborn fell out of me kept me from risking giving birth anywhere but the hospital. I called my doctor any time I had a strange feeling or felt something wasn’t quite right. Sure enough, my inkling that something was up was correct. At 32 weeks, I was dilated and contracting.
When labor began with Jake, the monitor didn’t pick up my contractions and although my water broke, it didn’t empty completely, and tests didn’t indicate the fluid was amniotic fluid. My ability to identify contractions was questioned. It was just a few hours later that he popped out.
This time, armed with a history named Jake and the confidence to state my needs, the doctors acted fast and started magnesium sulfate. Luckily, they managed to keep Elizabeth inside me for another week. She was born at 33 weeks, two weeks later than Jake had been. I believe the two extra weeks of gestation made a significant difference in her temperament. Elizabeth’s birth and her first few months were marked by substantially more peace and happiness than was the case with Jake.
Some of this peacefulness could be attributed to my calmness since I had had the experience previously with Jake. When I entered the NICU and said her name through the incubator, she’d turn to me, even when her eyes were closed. When I held her, she nuzzled into me, happily feeding. She did end up with acid reflux and probably presented as a normal baby with ups and downs, good days and bad, but compared to Jake’s start, she seemed a satisfied soul; too good to be true as babies go.
Although I was calmer and more knowledgeable about caring for her in the context of the NICU, once we went home I found that the jumble of emotions related to a surprising and “different” birth was there again. That surprised me.
Thinking about my children’s births, it awes me that no matter the medical care (and mine was not bad once we sorted out what exactly was happening to me), nature often wields its power when it comes to babies. Though prematurity is not something pregnant women think about, the biggest lesson I learned is to be proactive. In doing so, even in uncontrollable situations, mothers can feel empowered.
Having a baby born prematurely provided a lens through which I now view labor, birth, and infant care. Even years after their births, I feel more confident in interacting with doctors than I believe I would have without the experience. Most importantly, I learned that an expectant mother needs to question her care, be proactive, and, while respecting doctors and their knowledge, a mother needs to know as much about what’s happening to her as the doctors do.